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Breakthrough: RHIC Explores Matter at the Dawn of Time

Physicist Paul Sorensen describes discoveries made at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory. At RHIC, scientists from around the world study what the universe may have looked like in the first microseconds after its birth, helping us to understand more about why the physical world works the way it does - from the smallest particles to the largest stars. See the other Lab Breakthrough videos on the YouTube playlist.

Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist Paul Sorensen recently took some time to talk about the 2.4-mile Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider and the benefit of discovery in basic science. This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed at the National Labs. 

Question: For my mom in Ohio – what makes the breakthrough so exciting for her?

Paul Sorensen: We’ve recreated a form of matter that flooded the entire universe a fraction of one millionth of a second after the big bang, which is the dawn of time. I think the lives of all people are enriched by fundamental research into the fabric of the cosmos. To me, it’s like the first steps on the moon. It’s an amazing feat that goes beyond daily worries for a moment and reminds us of the incredible journey of exploration our species is on.

Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery – whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration? 

PS: The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider facility at Brookhaven, with its suite of huge particle detectors (essentially 3-D digital cameras the size of large houses) is absolutely unique in the world. The atom smasher we use in these studies is very versatile and allows us tomelt the nuclear matter we’re made of into a soup of more fundamental particles – then we watch what happens.  And we get to work in this environment committed to curiosity and discovery, which helps us push physics into unexplored territory.

Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?

PS: Wow, too many to list. Superconducting magnets, high-end electronics, high-tech materials, cutting-edge detector systems, world-leading software and computing resources -- so much goes into making this whole endeavor work. We also are building on a theory that was developed to describe observations made in the late 70s. Since then, we’ve advanced to an area where that theory is not well understood or mapped out. And that’s where the science is actually the most interesting.

Q: Where would I see, perhaps unknowingly, the effect of particle accelerator research in everyday life?

PS: www dot any website dot com. The World Wide Web was invented as a way to keep track of the research at particle accelerator facilities. Besides that nice spin off, particle accelerator technology is also used in radiation therapy, PET scans, MRI scans, and in the manufacturing of semi-conductors.

Q: How is the accelerator at Brookhaven unique among those at other National Labs?

PS: RHIC is the only collider still operating in the United States. What sets it apart from the European competitor, the Large Hadron Collider, is versatility. We can change the density and the shape of the specks of primordial matter we recreate. That allows us to study more of its properties, and learn more about the basic building blocks of the universe.

Q: For a young student (or researcher) looking to make their own breakthroughs, do you have any words of wisdom?

PS: As far as I can tell, learning and making progress always involves making mistakes first. So don’t be shy or afraid of being wrong, or afraid to admit if you’re wrong. Just learn from it and keep going. Keep trying, keep thinking, and keep fiddling. The faster you make the mistake, the sooner you can correct your misperceptions and get a little closer to the truth or the breakthrough.